NEW YORK (MainStreet) —Designer discount stores offer the thrill of finding some of today’s hottest labels for a fraction of the original retail price. The downside: The sheer multitude of merchandise can be overwhelming, and not every marked-down piece is worth your money. “It’s a place where you can have your best shopping successes – I got a $1,000 pair of black Prada heels for $150 a couple months ago – and your worst failures,” says Illysia Neumann-Loreck, a stylist who publishes the fashion blog Madlychic.com.
To avoid passing up a great deal or suffering from a case of buyer’s remorse, we asked a variety of fashion and consumer savings pros to share secrets for getting the most bang for your buck—especially as the warm weather approaches. Here’s what they had to say.
Hit the Clearance Racks First
Upon entering a designer discount store, resist the urge to check out the first items that catch your eye and instead head straight for the clearance racks. “When you’re in the clearance section you’re seeing really heavily reduced prices, typically under $30,” says Lilliana Vazquez, founder and editor of The Cheap Chica’s Guide to Style, a website offering tips for how to shop on a budget. “You’re probably getting more for your money at the clearance racks than you are at the regular racks, even at an off-price store.”
After you scour the clearance section, feel free to browse other racks, but at least you know from the start what you can get for around $30 or less. “Seeing something that’s $100 could make you go, 'Oh that might not be that great of a deal,'” Vazquez adds.
Stick With Brands You Know
Designer discount stores offer a plethora of brands to choose from, but it's safest to select the ones you’re already familiar with and enjoy. This way, you know those brands fit you well and you have an idea of how much they typically cost.
“I love Alice + Olivia, but most of their dresses retail for between $285 and $600,” says Vazquez. “So when I do see an Alice + Olivia dress for $99 I’m like, 'You know what, that’s more than 50% off in-season merchandise that I couldn’t get for that price at aliceandolivia.com or in an Alice + Olivia store.'”
Sticking with your favorite brands also helps ensure that you’re getting a high-quality item. “Let’s say you see a Ralph Lauren sweater and you’ve had a sweater in the past from that brand that’s lasted you a few years,” says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. “You’ll feel good making that purchase knowing, 'O.K.,I’m getting such a great value, not only because it’s marked down 75% but because this is quality merchandise that is going to last me several years.”
Check the Tag
As you browse products, look for a “Compare At” price on the store tag, “which is actually often a conservative estimate of the original retail price,” says Jeanette Pavini, consumer savings expert for Coupons.com. Sometimes the original tag from the manufacturer is also included on the product with the manufacturer’s suggested retail price. You can also try scanning the barcode on the manufacturer’s tag with the smartphone app RedLaser, which compares the price with other stores in your area as well as online retailers that sell the product.
Whether you’re shopping for a black suit for that upcoming job interview or a new pair of jeans, avoid impulse buys and only take home what you originally planned to purchase. “I wouldn’t go in there and spend all day browsing or looking, or you’re going end up buying things that you don’t necessarily need,” says Woroch.
If you do consider making an unplanned purchase, you can determine whether the item is really worth your money by dividing its cost by the number of times you’ll wear it. “A $7.99 shirt you wear once is a bigger waste of money than a $39.99 shirt you wear a couple of times a month," says Pavini.
Score Extra Discounts
There are several easy ways to get extra discounts on your purchases. For instance, the smartphone app Coupon Sherpa uses GPS to pull up coupons for stores in your area. "Just tap to view the coupon, and the cashier can either scan it from your phone or type in the barcode," Woroch explains.
You can also open a store credit card to earn extra discounts – just make sure that you only buy what you can pay off in full every month. If you're a fan of T.J.Maxx, HomeGoods or Marshalls, the TJX Rewards Credit Card works at all three stores and gives you 10% off on your first in-store purchase plus a $10 rewards certificate for every 1,000 points you earn. If you don't want to open a line of credit, many stores will send you coupons if you provide your email address or join their free rewards program. DSW's rewards program, for example, gives perks such as a $10 rewards certificate for every 1,500 points you earn and a $5 certificate for your birthday.
Another way to save is by purchasing people's unwanted gift cards at a discount through the site GiftCardGranny.com. An added incentive: Many gift cards ship for free.
Don’t Be Afraid to Bargain & Ask for Help
If you notice a defect on an item – such as a chip in a piece of furniture or a tear in a clothing item – don’t hesitate to ask the store manager for a discount. “Sometimes you can bargain if you notice that something’s not perfect,” says Woroch. Just make sure the flaw is something you can live with or fix yourself.
You should also ask a sales associate for assistance if you don't see an item you're searching for or you can't find something in your size. "Designer discount stores often receive deliveries on a daily basis," says Sara Cooper, a New York City-based fashion and wardrobe stylist. "You may not see what it is you're looking for, but a knowledgeable sales person may know that they have a box of exactly what you're looking for that's about to be unpacked."
And don’t forget to ask if the store offers a price-adjustment period. "This way, if the price goes down within a certain period of time after buying the item – usually 14 days – you can bring your receipt in and they will credit you back the difference," says Pavini.
"If you’re going to shop an off-price retailer, go first thing in the morning when the store opens," shefinds.com founder Michelle Madhok writes in her book Wear This Now: Your Style Solution for Every Season and Any Occasion (Harlequin, 2012). "Discount stores tend to get disheveled quickly, and are often understaffed on the floor, so you want to go when the racks are still organized and your dream dress isn’t hiding in the dressing room." If you can't shop until later in the day, always check the end of the racks as well as the discard rack outside of the dressing room for great pieces that may be hiding, Madhok advises.